POLITICS

Indiana Governor Extends Needle Exchange Program As HIV Crisis Worsens

04/20/2015 12:25 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) on Monday extended a short-term needle exchange program in order to respond to an exploding HIV crisis in southeastern Indiana.

"While we’ve made progress in identifying and treating those affected by this heartbreaking epidemic, the public health emergency continues and so must our efforts to fight it," Pence said in a statement.

As of April 17, the Indiana State Department of Health had confirmed 128 cases and at least six preliminary cases of HIV in Scott County, the governor's office reported. The week before, the county was looking at 106 cases. Typically, Scott County would see fewer than five new HIV cases a year.

Indiana's HIV crisis is linked to intravenous drug use of a prescription painkiller called Opana. Like many other conservatives, Pence opposes needle exchange programs as part of drug control efforts. The exchanges allow drug users to obtain sterile needles and have been shown to reduce the transmission of diseases like HIV, but critics say the programs facilitate drug abuse. Research has refuted that claim.

The exchanges are technically illegal in Indiana. But last month, Pence made an exception and signed an executive order authorizing a temporary needle exchange program that was set to expire this week. Pence has now extended that order for another 30 days. According to The New York Times, since the temporary exchange was approved, 5,322 clean syringes have been distributed to 86 people.

"The goal of that program is a clean needle for each person for each injection," Amber Kent, a spokeswoman for Indiana's Joint Information Center, told The Huffington Post. The center is working on behalf of the state's Department of Health.

However, as the Times reported, the fate of the exchange is still up in the air, since Pence's executive order did not provide funding for the Scott County program. The needle exchange is only one part of the response effort, Kent said. The state is also coordinating testing, education, mental health services and addiction counseling.

As HuffPost previously reported, Indiana scrambled to set up pop-up clinics in response to the crisis, since five Planned Parenthood facilities in the state that provided HIV testing have closed their doors thanks to recent state funding cuts.

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